Colombo, Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Nothing less than existential: Our choice at the presidential elections

“And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.”

“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath

If you can’t take my word for it, take that of Eric Hobsbawm, regarded not only as Britain’s greatest living historian but as ‘one of the outstanding historians of our age’ (Independent on Sunday). The Guardian says “Hobsbawm is one of the leading authors of the concepts and language in which all of us now discuss our situation”. It is indeed his language and concepts that help us understand why Mahinda Rajapakse is certainly my choice for president this time, given the choices available. Rajapakse’s achievement exceeds by far, his failings and failures — and I say this as a victim of one of those failures, a Pontius Pilatesque assent to a (resumed) attempt to dismiss me notwithstanding an important international mission in the country’s defense, successfully fulfilled.  Rajapakse’s success was historic, and not merely from the point of view of this island’s history, but more notably, in achieving a victory that is rare in contemporary (or post modern) world history.  In his most recent book ‘Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism’ (2007), Hobsbawm includes an inaugural address delivered at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece in 2004, in which he notes that: “Today the full armed power of governments has proved incapable of maintaining unchallenged control of their territory for decades – in Sri Lanka, in India’s Kashmir, in Colombia, in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, or, for that matter, in parts of Belfast. There is indeed, a general crisis of state power and state legitimacy, even on the home territories of old and stable European states such as Spain and the United Kingdom”. (p 81).

Earlier, in Chapter 1, in a paper delivered on the centenary of the Nobel Peace Prize, Hobsbawm writes “Armed conflicts within states have become more serious and can continue for decades without any serious prospect of victory or settlement – Kashmir, Angola, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Colombia.” (p25). And again in Chapter 7, “society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka).” (p117-8). In Chapter 8 Hobsbawm says the LTTE “have been conducting an effective civil war since the 1980s. They are best known as one of the great pioneers and probably the largest operators of suicide bombing…” (p122).

That then is the measure of Mahinda Rajapakse’s achievement: not only having overcome a formidable foe and ended a situation which had persisted ‘for decades with no serious prospect of victory or settlement’ according one of the world’s foremost minds; not only having shouldered and completed a task left undone by four notable predecessors; but having succeed in a task that many have not elsewhere in the world including in states far more powerful than Sri Lanka—the task of restoring state sovereignty and the monopoly of violence over its whole territory, thus resolving “the general crisis of state power”, that historian Hobsbawm identifies as one of the most daunting challenges of our time.

The authentic, detailed televised testimony given in public lectures and interviews by the frontline combat commanders Shavendra de Silva, Kamal Gunaratne, Prasanna Silva and Chagi Gallage, supported by intelligence chief Kapila Hendawitharane – arguably the finest group of officers of that rank serving in any military anywhere in the world today—means that the verdict is in about the decisive role of the national political leadership in winning the war.

For this achievement and the possession and use of those political strengths needed for it, should Mahinda Rajapakse be deprived of a second term; thrown out? While his lapses in the arena of domestic governance are legion, which error, malfeasance or collection of them outweighs his positive historic achievement?

Whose “Deveni Meheyuma”?

‘Deveni Meheyuma’ or ‘Second Operation/Second Offensive’ is the challenger General Fonseka’s campaign slogan. The problem is that there seem to be several such ‘second wave’ or ‘second strike’ operations. One of them is that of the overseas Tigers. The other is that of those external circles which wanted the war to stop (or to stop the war) before we finished off the Tigers.

This election has an external dimension and strategic aspect which is now surfacing in newspaper reports. The innocuous title of Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe’s January 7th piece in The Independent (UK), “TAMILS THROW WEIGHT BEHIND GENERAL WHO CRUSHED THEM”, had as revealing a “strap” as Liz Hurley’s, which read “TIGERS’ POLITICAL WING TRYING TO OUST INCUMBENT PRESIDENT AT JANUARY POLL”, while the identical piece running in the New Zealand Herald went all the way: “TAMIL TIGERS THROW WEIGHT BEHIND GENERAL WHO CRUSHED THEM”.

Now comes an AFP report “SRI LANKA VOTE RAISES HOPES IN WASHINGTON”, dated Sun Jan 17, by Shaun Tandon Shaun Tandon filing from Washington DC, which discloses significantly that:

‘…The US official was upbeat about pledges made by Fonseka including greater media freedom and independent commissions to oversee the judiciary and other key institutions.

“I’m hesitant to make predictions about the future, because candidates promise all sorts of things and then they don’t deliver, but certainly General Fonseka has been making some good pronunciations,” he said…

…”The Tamil Diaspora wants Mahinda to be defeated,” said David Poopalapillai, national spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress. “The climate would change and the rays of hope would come. It would bring some change in the country in the political climate,” he said.’

So the line-up is clear: our enemies the Tamil Tigers want a certain outcome and in this their views seem to converge with some elements in the West who wanted us to stop the war. The choice before the Sri Lankan voter is also clear: do we line up with the overseas based Tamil Tigers and pro-Tiger tendency of the Tamil Diaspora, as well as those elements in the West who wanted us to stop the war before Prabhakaran and his army were defeated and destroyed? Or do we line up with and defend that leader whom the Tamil Tigers want to see ousted? Do we side with the remnants of the unreconstructed, Sri Lanka hating secessionists and those who sought to deflect our victory over them, or do we side with the man who defeated the Tigers and stood up to those powers which tried to forestall that triumph of our people and nation? Do we line up with those who sought to exercise “the imperialism of human rights” (again, Hobsbawm, p7) over Sri Lanka as they did in Kosovo or with those who stood in their way?

I’d be ashamed if I were to do the former rather than the latter.

I believe that the negative phenomena of nepotism and corruption are secondary to the need to reward the incumbent for his unparalleled dedication to the war effort, decisive success in the war, refusal to blink in the face of Western pressure and safeguarding of the country’s independence and sovereignty. I also believe that corruption and nepotism are not reason enough to award the Tamil Tigers and their proxies a political victory and posthumous validation. I finally believe that these ills and secondary dangers in comparison to that of harshly authoritarian and coercive, possibly ruthlessly tyrannical rule.

The great modern political philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself the sister-in-law of that subtle Marxist thinker Walter Benjamin,  once said somewhere that we unconsciously cross invisible lines in the sands of History which we  become aware of only when we look back and find that they have grown into walls behind us.  The election that beckons conceals just such an invisible or barely discernible line. If we cross it we not only venture into the unknown, as dangerous as a desert or a minefield; we move into a terrain from which there may be no going back for decades, because the lines we have crossed have grown into walls behind us. Now that we have overcome the worst of threats, that of separatist terrorism, why should we take a risk of such magnitude?

Our choices in this political battle will tell us who and what we are or have become; what we hold most dear and what we downgrade; how far we have come from what we were or what we have always been under the skin. The choices of January 26th are, in that sense, nothing less than existential.